As we approached Braga, I was nervous. Our tour of Central and Northern Portugal has been very fast paced for us. We like to meander, but have spent the past week in a near constant state of movement, the routine being: wake up, eat bread, ham and cheese for breakfast (every single hotel serves this, every single one), pack up, jump in the car, drive a few hours, arrive in a new city, check into our hotel, wander around and take pictures, have a lovely dinner, repeat. It’s nothing to complain about; it’s a wonderful way to spend the day, but we were both anxious to get to Braga because we had an apartment and three whole days to just relax and enjoy the city. However, our phone told us we were within a kilometer of our destination and we were surrounded by 1960s Soviet era looking architecture, drab, grey apartment building after building. I knew very little about Braga, other than it was very old. I had no vision of the city the way you do a Venice or a Paris. I started to think that I may be doing a lot of reading over the next few days, then we turned the corner.
Braga’s historical center is beyond impressive. Ancient (like the Portuguese court seat of power in 1093 ancient) but not overwhelmed by gothic influences. Its multitude of pedestrian streets unveil themselves in esplanade after esplanade, truly majestic Baroque and Neoclassical fountains and loads of gardens and parks. It’s mid-September and the weather is perfect. Every Bracarense is out enjoying the day, shopping, having a beer with friends or just taking a stroll along the sidewalks that wend their way through the city gardens.
At first it seems like Braga presents itself all at once, but that’s not the case. Braga is meant to be meandered and, only then, will you find the nooks and crannies that make it so special. A few things are impossible to miss. First, like everywhere in Portugal, everyone is Catholic and there are many churches. But in Braga, there are MANY churches. Coined the Rome of Portugal for obvious reasons, Braga houses some of the most impressive religious architecture and artifacts in the world. I am not especially passionate about cathedrals or religious art, but it’s hard not to be moved by the majesty of these structures. They envelope the city and frame the open spaces. Where often such basilicas are surrounded by large stone plazas, in Braga they stand watch over gardens exploding with color and umbrella filled restaurants and cafes. The most special of all these religious sites in my opinion is a chapel within the Se, the oldest church in Portugal. The chapel is a 4th century structure, simple and unadorned save one spectacular detail, its walls are covered in Arabic tile paintings. The Arch-Bishop who built the chapel fought the Moors in Spain prior to returning and overseeing its construction. No one knows why he chose to incorporate these simple and beautiful Muslim designs. In the 14th century, the leaders of the inquisition thought little of the décor and plastered over it. It was only discovered during renovation work 60 years ago. I will be careful not to attach my own modern interpretations to this ancient bishop’s motives for the design, but regardless of his reasons, the chapel is special.
The second noticeable characteristic of Braga is music. The Portuguese have very strong musical traditions and street performances are common throughout the country. Braga is uniquely suited for this. Church bells ring out long and frequently, starting the chorus and acting as inspiration. In our short time here, we’ve witnessed two live performances of jaw dropping talent. The first was a group of musicians sitting outside at a bar, strumming their guitars as the male vocalist bellowed in the traditional Portuguese style of saudade. There is no direct English translation for this word because it is more a feeling and something very uniquely Portuguese. Saudade expresses melancholy, nostalgia, longing and loss. The second performance we heard long before we saw it. Beautiful classical violin rang out across the streets on a Sunday, when people were doing their strolling. I got goose bumps as we approached her. She was too young to be that good, maybe 20 and I swear weighed 90 pounds. That tiny presence and that big, wafting sound. That is Braga, small but mighty.